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31st May 2016

JOE speaks to ‘Freed From Desire’ singer Gala about her hit becoming a Will Grigg anthem

Will Grigg's on fire

Tom Victor

If you were surprised to see a ’90s pop hit morph into one of the most popular chants going, imagine how the original performer must feel.

It is nearly 19 years since Italian singer-songwriter Gala reached number two in the UK charts with ‘Freed From Desire’, but now her most famous hit has been revived, and it’s all because of a certain Northern Irish striker.

Had Will Grigg not fired in 25 goals for Wigan Athletic this season, the accompanying terrace chant might not have hit the same levels of popularity.

But now’s not the time for hypotheticals. Grigg scored those goals, earning him a call-up to Michael O’Neill’s Euro 2016 squad, and France is likely to be treated to countless renditions of ‘Will Grigg’s On Fire’ throughout the summer.

So what does the original performer think about her song being appropriated by football fans across the UK? We caught up with Gala to find out.

I think it’s not by chance that it gets used as an anthem,” Gala tells us from her home in Brooklyn.

“My intention was not soccer, and in one way I could say I don’t like that they changed my lyrics because the lyrics mean so much to me, but you have to see things from a different perspective.”

She recalls the reception her song received back in the ’90s, when you couldn’t go a day in a major European city without hearing the lyrics “Freed from desire, mind and senses purified”.

Even those who didn’t understand the lyrics seemed to show an appreciation at the time, and this can be used now to explain the fondness of football fans for a song with its roots in Buddhist prayer.

“I remember being in a cafe in Italy and a guy said, ‘I don’t know what this song is about but I believe it’s about something important’,” she explains.

“So I understood music can be perceived on many levels, it doesn’t always matter.”

While some might have been surprised at the turn of events, the way in which the news made its way to Gala seemed fitting.

It first arrived last week from an old friend from England, who she first met when performing on Top Of The Pops in the late ’90s and is “a very special person for me, who always brings me surprises”.

Since then, more and more people have got in touch – old friends and people who she worked with in England – and she is grateful for being able to realise the message she originally intended for the song.

“The original reason why I got into singing was because when I was in high school I realised that everyone was separated,” she explains.

“I felt ‘My God, we used to be so together and everyone is separating’, and singing was a way to connect all the people who travelled to Paris, to London. When I had this big hit everyone would call me from all over the world and that gave me a sense of keeping the unity and the feeling that there was a community,

“That is not the same as having a real community, but it was my desire, my innocent young desire of bringing everyone together. So the fact that this song is used and sung by many people together, to bring them together, is kind of the goal of that song. It keeps repeating in different ways.”

In a way, the direction of Gala’s career mirrors that of Wigan Athletic. Both experienced moments of short-lived and intense glory, and – like the creative and open Wigan team relegated under Roberto Martinez – Gala has been reluctant to compromise her principles.

She still records new dance music regularly, and has recorded a new acoustic version of ‘Freed From Desire’ for the Jean Dujardin film Up For Love, but remains passionate about all genres and writes music for other artists.

And the connection she makes between football and music makes it even more fitting that those who have chosen to appropriate her song are Wigan fans.

“Yes, sport is about winning, of course, the fun is winning too, but for me when I see a soccer team and I see one who plays with style, with elegance, with honestly, and the other team wins, I don’t care,” she says.

“I prefer the team who maybe lost but played with style. So to me that’s great, it’s a similar concept to ‘Freed From Desire’. The message that ‘people want more and more’ – you know, people have a car and then they want a bigger car, they have an apartment and then they want the one with the swimming pool.

“I say enjoy your life, not the goal, not having the bigger car. Enjoy having what you have.”

When Gala travelled to Paris this year to record the acoustic version of ‘Freed From Desire,’ she could have been forgiven for anticipating it would be the only notable rendition of that song in the French capital.

But on June 21, we could be hearing those famous adapted lyrics, ‘Will Grigg’s on fire, your defence is terrified’ as Grigg’s Northern Ireland take on World Cup winners Germany at the Parc des Princes.

Things have a funny way of going full circle.